Cuba

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Richard Bangs and family biking in Cuba
Richard Bangs and family biking in Cuba
Richard Bangs and family biking in Cuba

My father, usually a quiet man, burst through the door and hustled the family in front of the television set. He said we were on the verge of something terrible and we needed to see and understand. It was October 22, 1962. My father, a career officer at the C.I.A., seemed distressed with things he knew that others did not.

We then watched in horror as John Kennedy described the Russian missiles west of Havana, capable of reaching our home in Bethesda, and the ordering of a quarantine that would bring us to the brink of global nuclear war.

For the years following, my father worked noiselessly within the Company as it plotted a range of assassinations against Castro, including poisoned cigars. Finally, dad suffered a nervous breakdown, and took an early retirement. For me, in the sparse furniture of my mind, Cuba was a matchstick inches away, ever ready to strike the frictional surface of our shores.

With time, however, the rhetoric hushed, and reports of American travelers finding hospitality and warmth increased. My old friends Michael Kaye and his wife Yolanda, passionate cyclists who have turned their tandem through Europe, North Africa and the Americas, reported that their favorite place to recycle was Cuba. In fact, they asked if I might join their next wheeled adventure, a swing through central Cuba with a daily agenda of community, cultural and educational visits and, collapsing the many floors of memory, I agreed.

So, with a small group of friends, and my seven-year-old son Jasper, we arrive Havana and wade through a mob of greeters holding signs for tour companies. Our outing is not so fancy, and so we grab a taxi, a Hyundai and, passing the parade of head-turning late 50s American sedans with swooping gull wings for fins, we head downtown, fleeting along the way a huge billboard, “To Hope,” with an image of a missile breaking into a dove.

We check into the Sevilla, the first luxury hotel in Havana, filled with photographs of the notorious who strode through: Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Graham Greene, Joséfine Baker (who had been refused accommodation at the Hotel Nacional because of the color of her skin) Joe Louis, Ted Williams and, of course, Hemingway, who supposedly wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls between and over mojitos here.

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In the sweet liquid light of the Cuban morning, we board a Chinese-made King Long tour bus, the same model I used in North Korea a couple years ago. Our guide, José, says King Long means “guaranteed for six months.”

“How long have you had it,” someone takes the bait.

“Twelve months.”

The bus is pulling a customized trailer (with a blown-up picture of a Cuban on a bike carrying a lamb on his back) that holds all the bikes, parts and some sultry wrenches, so we are self-sufficient for the journey.

A few minutes down the road, we pass the Christopher Columbus Necropolis, “the largest concentration of private property in Cuba,” so says José. “People are just dying to get in,” pipes Michaela Guzy, on assignment to produce travel videos of our trip. Many sites are named after the Italian-borne explorer, as he landed here October 28, 1492. He first thought he had entered Asia’s mainland, and was convinced that the name “Cuba,” which was what the aborigines called it, was the Indian name for Japan. Rather, it is a Taino word meaning “where fertile land is abundant.”

We drive five cool hours east to Santa Clara, the gay capital of Cuba, says José, who pays for our snacks with Cuban three dollar bills. It is also a wealthy city, which seems antithetical to the system, but money pours in from Cuban relatives in Miami, and tourism, which long ago passed sugar as the biggest generator of foreign exchange, and is making a significant difference. Most everything is done in cash (no U.S. credit cards accepted yet), and José shares that if you see someone walking down the street hunched over from a sore back, it likely means he is rich because of the money stashed in his mattress.

We park at the sprawling Hotel La Granjita, which, with its large aqua-blue pool surrounded by coconut palms and towels twisted like swans on the bungalow beds, seems like it better belongs in Cancun. Here, beneath a canorous refrain of birdsong, we adjust and mount our steeds, Specialized Sirrus Comp Disc Carbon Hybrids with 20 gears.

A banana-shaped and colored Adams Trail-a-Bike is attached to the back of mine, on which Jasper will ride. After a few spins around the parking lot we head off down the road, winding through chaotic traffic, over to Che Guevara’s mausoleum. Che led the rebels in the battle of Santa Clara, a pivotal victory over Batista’s army, which in turn led to the triumph of the Revolution, which in turn led to that moment in which the world was on the nuclear threshold. It all had an aleatory beginning — when the young, privileged medical student Ernesto Guevara took a motorcycle trip through South America and was exposed to the widespread poverty, hunger and disease. He returned transformed, radicalized, compelled to change the world. The rest is history. Today, Cuba has weaved the rope of many small advantages: It has a literacy rate of 99.8 percent; the health system is among the world’s best, and the country has a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S. And, they watch all the hot American T.V. shows, such as Deadliest Catch, on pirated thumb drives.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post

JeanneI landed in Havana fairly late on the evening of September 5th, 2013. In our last email exchange, Raúl – the friend of a friend of my boyfriend’s friend – had specified he’d be wearing a straw hat with over-sized sunglasses; I, had sent him a picture of my silly face. So upon exiting Jose Marti International Airport, it was easy to recognize each other between the crowds.

Shortly after, Raúl placed my two leather bags in the boot of a charming red Deux Chevaux. I sat in the back, Raúl sat in front – and as questions flew back and forth – our chófer drove, windows down, along deserted roads with thriving vegetation.

When we reached n° 637 on the Calle 1 of the Vedado, the car stopped – and despite my insistence – Raúl didn’t let me pay a cent. Instead, he quickly switched subjects:

“ I hope you don’t mind walking up the stairs: our elevator from the 1950’s just broke down.” He said with his Cuban accent.
“Of course not, I’m young!” I exclaimed. Except I hadn’t realized it was ten floors we actually had to deal with…

Sweating heavily through our light summer clothes, we wished a good night to the many neighbors we crossed as we climbed, and finally got to the top. Raúl unlocked a grid, pulled the gold handle of a white door, and his mother appeared lying before a ventilator on a flowered couch. She was watching Avenida Brasil – a Brazilian telenovela particularly famous in Cuba.

“Hola mi amor.” She turned around and, as she saw me, she stood up.
“Mami, Julie. Julie, China.” Raúl introduced us.
“China?” I repeated, uncertain, as we shook hands.
“Can’t you see she looks Chinese?” Raúl teased and, as she feigned to slap him, he ran off to drop my stuff in the first bedroom, on the left of the short corridor.
“Did you eat?” China asked.
“No, but I’m fine.” I said.
“Raúl, fix her something to eat.”
Following China, I entered the kitchen and immediately recognized the copy of Jeanne Hébuterne, originally by Modigliani in 1919.
“Who did this?” I asked.
“I did.” Raúl replied, reaching out for the fridge.
“That’s amazing…I still can’t believe that woman killed herself, the year after, while being pregnant.” I said absorbed by the painting.
“She was in love.” Raúl answered, sprinkling salt and lemon over a diced avocado.
“ She should’ve sold her husband’s paintings, at least she would’ve made herself rich!” China intervened.
“Mami. The woman committed suicide after her husband’s death. Do you really think she cared about becoming rich?” Raúl shook his head, and we both sat at the rectangular dining table.
“Being pregnant, she should’ve thought like a mother before throwing herself out of the window.” China insisted, pouring the water she had boiled, earlier on, in a huge plastic container.
“Well mami, I suppose she was madly in love.” Raúl repeated.
“And God punished her for this.” China placed the water container in the fridge and stepped out of the kitchen.
“When did you start painting?” I asked.
“I always wanted to paint, but I never had time until – shortly before my father died – I broke my back, and well…that’s when I began.”
“What happened to your dad?” I poked a piece of mango with my fork.
“He had a heart attack. Would you like some water?” I nodded and approached my glass.
“I was alone at home. I heard him call, but – with my frozen backbone – I couldn’t do much. Eventually, I managed to crawl. Yet it was too late.” He shrugged.
“Are you a lonely child?”
“No. My sister arrived the following day: after nine years in London she had planned a surprise visit. Good timing, huh?” He chuckled and passed a hand through his greasy black hair.
“And now? How does your mother cope with you living in the Dominican Republic?”
“It’s hard. Yet it’s the only way we can ‘survive’. As a widow with two pensions, my mother only earns 400$ per month. I’d earn between 8$ and 12$ per month here, so…” he took our plates and walked towards the sink. “Anyways, I’ll move back to Cuba some day: I don’t want to lose our house to the state.” He stretched, and standing by the entrance of his room, he said:
“Buenas noches, Julie.”
“Thanks for everything, Raúl.”

That night, I went to sleep feeling grateful for everything I had and –caught by the spur of the moment – I vowed to never complain again. Too bad it only took an expensive and limited Internet access at the Melia Hotel, the next morning, to discourage my spoiled westerner soul.

About the Author: With her multicultural French, American and Italian origins, Julie has always been a dedicated traveler. Since she discovered the sharing of her stories enabled her to travel some more, she also became a passionate writer – who now mainly strives to travel so she can write, and write so she can travel more.
Blog: http://beretta.matadoru.com/

cubaLast spring when I was researching potential places to take my yearly holiday, a number of destinations were put on the table. Costa Rica, Barbados, Cuba and various places in the United States such as Texas, Illinois, Montana and California all made the final cut but in the end, it was Cuba that won the call to my travel agent and my heart after it was all said and done.

My first morning in Varadero was spent unpacking and exploring my immediate surroundings but it take long for me to feel comfortable enough to leave the hotel and venture on my own to see the real Cuba and meet real Cubans. This allowed me to I learn a lot about the Cuban way of life.

One of the things I learned about Cuba is that the average Cuban makes the equivalent of fifteen dollars a month and acquires his or her food and other goods through a rationing system. Yes, this rationing system means there are caps on how much food a person can eat each month but no one is starving to death in Cuba. Imagine if we all rationed what we ate and just ate what we needed; no one would go hungry and maybe there would never be a shortage of food and every single person on the planet would get their fair share. Everyone eats, no one is homeless, education is free, healthcare is free and among the best in the world and, as one will notice while interacting with the Cuban people, they are always smiling and always cheerful.

I few other things I noticed about Cubans is their lack of material possessions, their devotion to family and their knack for being very social. And by social, I am not talking about chatting to someone they will never meet on an online chat-line. The average Cuban does not own a computer and this reflects largely on their way of life. When I drive or walk around my neighborhood here in Canada, I rarely see people sitting outside on their steps. Even beaches and parks are empty on beautiful sunny days and the only time I see children is when they are walking to school. While walking around the streets of Havana, there were people everywhere. Adults sitting on stoops talking to their neighbors, vendors chatting to anyone who will lend an ear and children playing in the street.

While the rest of the world is working eighty hours a week to pay their bills racked up due to the frivolous spending they do in while their children are being raised by a television, Cubans have learned to survive with very little while maintaining a positive attitude that is rare in our society. In Cuba, no one cares what material possessions their neighbor has and no one is in competition with one another.

My time in Cuba allowed me to discover that there is still at least one place left on this continent where the people and the experiences one has are more important than their material possessions and I learned that it is possible to be happy with very little and enjoy life to the fullest like many Cuban people do every day despite hardships that most of us here in Canada and the United States will never have to endure.

The price that we pay to live the lives we live in our developed society may not be noticeable to the average person but one only needs to turn off the television, the computer and the video game system and take a real look around them and they may be quite surprised to see that that price is quite high as our culture disappears, our lives become overrun with trivial things, our health fails, morals take a steep nosedive and children no longer know how to be children.

In this regard, the Cuban people who fight to keep their culture intact, who continue to instill morals in their children, who get to know and love their neighbors, who make every attempt to be happy with what they have despite adversity are many steps ahead of the rest of us.

Ready for your own unforgettable Cuba Holidays? Share about where you want to travel in our next contest!

About the Author: Andrea MacEachern:  I am a freelance writer and photographer currently living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It wasn’t until I was asked to write a script for a 30-minute short film that I realized my passion was for the written word and I’ve been writing ever since!  My work has been featured in numerous publications including Chicken Soup for the Beach Lover’s Soul, Cats and Kittens, Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen (anthology), and Fate Magazine.

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cubaUrban Agriculture in Cuba

When you think of Cuba, some of the first things to come to mind are likely to be cigars, rum cocktails and its colourful revolutionary history. You may be surprised to learn, however, that Cuba is a world leader in the field of urban agriculture, with more than half of its produce now grown in a city environment. Cuba’s capital, Havana, has developed a model of inner-city food production that is currently emulated in many other cities, including Detroit and Istanbul.

The origins of the practice

During the era of the Soviet Bloc, Cuba’s food was largely imported from overseas, along with agricultural supplies and raw materials. In 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba experienced the sudden onset of food shortages and responded in an innovative and proactive way. With a US embargo in place, fuel had been in short supply, making transport of crops from rural areas difficult to maintain and it quickly became obvious that local solutions would be vital, so residents began planting food crops in any available space. In cities, such as Havana, this included back yards, porches and derelict spaces in their neighbourhoods.

Development

The Ministry of Agriculture soon recognised the value of this endeavour and began to support the citizens, in conjunction with government officials in Havana, by clarifying legal issues over land use and providing growing space, free of charge, to anybody who wanted it. With the introduction of organic cultivation methods, developed by government horticulturalists, as well as simple irrigation equipment, the production of food in urban spaces grew and the practice continues to increase, providing ample food for Cuba’s population and ensuring the Cuban cuisine is not just tasty but healthy as well.

Agriculture tourism

In addition to being interesting as a socio-economic phenomenon, Havana’s agricultural developments are a draw for tourists who want to experience this unusual way of life and to sample the fresh food which is produced this way. Not only can tourists visit these organic smallholdings, but they can also volunteer on them in much the same way as volunteers get involved in the Israeli kibbutz system. Whilst staying on the farms, travellers enjoy the simplicity of a lifestyle that is rarely seen in more industrialised nations, including the UK, as well as witnessing an extraordinary success story first hand. One of the great advantages of holidaying in one of Havana’s urban farms is that you are able to enjoy the great outdoor experience of a country holiday, whilst being close enough to all of the city’s tourist attractions to pay them a visit.

Travelling to Cuba

As Cuba is a popular holiday destination, it is very easy to book flights from the UK. For added convenience, Heathrow provides long-stay parking facilities in conjunction with an overnight stay at their hotel, allowing you to be well rested before the fairly long flight. After all, if you’re going to be volunteering, you’ll need to save your energy for digging.

About the AuthorRuth Kennedy is passionate about travel, politics and writing. She mostly writes about travel and current affairs, in between trips abroad whenever possible. She writes from her home in the UK, which she shares with her dog Billy.

In general, I feel free when I travel. Traveling, especially alone, offers me the chance to escape my daily life, to see a new place and the mobility involved makes me feel like I grew wings and took off into the unknown. I have traveled to many places where I felt free but the most free I ever felt was during the week I spent in Cuba last year. I realize that sounds strange considering Cuba is far from a free country when it comes to many things but for me, a foreigner, in a place so vastly different from my home country, many of the things that Cubans feel are limitations on their freedoms were in fact very liberating to me.

As you are probably already aware, Cuba is a communist country which means there are limitations on the people who live there. Having to use ration cards to obtain necessary goods and lack of freedom of speech are just a couple of the things Cubans have to deal with on a day-to-basis but when compared to my day-to-day life, the way of life in Cuba is much better than the day-to-life here at home in Canada. I know Canada is known for being one of the freest countries in the world, when you really look at how we live our lives in the more developed countries, you realize that we are not as free as we think.

One of the things I learned about Cuba is that our perceptions about their political system are slightly skewed.

We have always been told that Communism in every form and even speaking the word is pure evil but I learned that, although a lot of the Communist ideals in Cuba are not ideal for the people, a lot of other things are actually better than I have it here in Canada, at least based on the way I look at the world and the direction we are headed. With this newfound knowledge, I came to the conclusion that Communism, if done right, can be a wonderful system that benefits everyone. Imagine if we all rationed what we ate and just ate what we needed; no one would go hungry and maybe there would be enough food for every single person on the planet. Everyone eats, no one is homeless, education is free, healthcare is free and among the best in the world and, as one will notice while interacting with the Cuban people, they are always smiling and always cheerful. They may be controlled by their government but the rest of us are also controlled by our governments in ways we not see and we are also controlled by large corporations which are almost non-existent in Cuba.

Other things I noticed about the Cuban people include their lack of material possessions, their devotion to family and their knack for being very social.

And by social, I am not talking about chatting it up with someone they will never meet face-to-face on an online dating site or chat-line. You see, the average Cuban does not own a computer and rarely has access to the internet. When I drive or walk around my neighborhood here in Canada, I rarely see people sitting outside on their steps. Even beaches and parks are empty on beautiful sunny days and the only time I see children is when they are walking to and from school. While walking around the streets of Havana, there were people everywhere. Adults sitting on stoops talking to their neighbors, vendors chatting it up on the sidewalk to anyone who will lend an ear and children playing games in the street and well, being children. It was like I went back in time to when the world valued things like family and living life to the fullest.

If I could have ten minutes with a Cuban whose dream it is to immigrate to another country so they can have all the “luxuries” that we have, I would remind him that the grass always seems greener on the other side. While material wealth and opportunity are easier to acquire on the other side, there is always a price to pay and sacrifices to be made. I would tell him that not all that glitters is gold and the way of life we have in the “free” world is not always free. The price that we pay may not be noticeable to the average person but one only needs to turn off the television, the computer and the video game system and take a real look around them and they may be quite surprised to see that the price we pay to live the lives we live in the “developed” world are proving to be high as our cultures disappear, our lives become overrun with trivial things, our health fails, morals take a steep nosedive and children no longer know how to be children.

In this regard, the Cuban people who fight to keep their culture intact, who continue to instill morals in their children, who get to know and love their neighbors, who make every attempt to be happy with what they have despite adversity are many steps ahead of the rest of us and that is why I feel so free whenever I visit Cuba.

About the Author: Andrea MacEachern:  I am a freelance writer and photographer currently living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  I grew up in an area so rich with culture history and tradition, it only seemed natural for me to do what came naturally to me and so many around me.  Be an artist.  I tried my hand at music, acting, and various technical roles on local TV and film sets but none suited me.  It wasn’t until I was asked to write a script for a 30-minute short film that I realized my passion was for the written word and I’ve been writing ever since!  I studied Media Communications at Lawrence College in St. John’s, NL and as well, I have a diploma in Business and certificates in Creative Writing, Scriptwriting and Public Speaking.  My work has been featured in numerous publications including Chicken Soup for the Beach Lover’s Soul, Cats and Kittens, Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen (anthology), and Fate Magazine.

By Lee Abbamonte

Travel opens your eyes and your mind to a whole new world.

Travel enables you to see the world through other peoples eyes and from other points of view.

Travel increases your awareness of other cultures and people.

Travel makes you smarter.

Travel is the best education you can receive.

Travel enables you to speak intelligently on a variety of global topics.

Travel shows you how global policy effects different countries and different types of people.

Travel brings you to places you’ve only dreamed about seeing.

Travel shows you landscapes you never thought were possible.

Travel shows you what real beauty is.

Travel shows you that everything is beautiful in its own way.

Travel makes books and television come to life.

Travel makes adventures happen everyday.

Travel makes dreams come true.

Travel gives you a sense of enormous accomplishment.

Travel gives you something to look forward to to.

Travel gives you options.

Travel is a lifetime journey that is never the same twice.

Travel makes the big world small.

Travel humbles you.

Travel puts things into perspective.

Travel shows you what poor is.

Travel shows you how unfair this world can be.

Travel shows you people overcoming the longest odds to live their life to the fullest.

Travel shows you triumphs of the human spirit.

Travel teaches you how to say “Cheers” in 30 different languages.

Travel teaches you the International language of beer.

Travel teaches you to appreciate wine and the beauty of vineyards.

Travel teaches you to try new things.

Travel makes you yearn to do new things.

Travel teaches you the difference between a traveler and a tourist.

Travel teaches you to become a traveler and not just a tourist.

Lee Abbamonte is the youngest American to visit every country in the world. I am a travel writer, travel expert, global adventurer and have appeared on NBC, CNN, ESPN, GBTV, Fox News, Jetset Social and have been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Smart Money, Slate, OK! Magazine, Peter Greenberg radio and many others. I’ve visited 306 countries and am one of the world’s most-traveled people.

“I believe in globalization of everything including people. I believe that I am a citizen of Earth. I believe that people around the world are at their core, basically good and the same. I believe that more people should experience the world and the way traveling can open their eyes and minds to different and exciting things. I believe in just being myself. I believe in life.” – Lee Abbamonte